Sati is a Hindu funerary custom where a widow immolates herself on her husband’s funeral pyre or commits suicide in another manner shortly after her husband’s death. The now-obsolete act first dates back to the fourth century BCE and is considered to have originated within the Kshatriya (warrior) caste in India. The practice was widespread among Hindu communities and observed by Sikh aristocrats, but has also been evidenced outside South Asia, such as in Indonesia. Once sati had permeated the other castes in India, the act became increasingly common.

The reason for practicing sati was that a wife who burned herself on the pyre, whether willingly or unwillingly, created honour for her family. Along with her flesh, the sins committed by her husband would be burned away too. Widows often believed the life that awaited them should they not commit sati would be worse than death; she would essentially become a ‘non-person,’ dishonouring her family, unable to attend any religious rituals, and having to shave her head in shame. In this time, wives could be of any age – even a five-year-old child would have to practice sati. Moreover, many women who did not commit suicide would move out and live on the streets, as they did not want to live in humiliation with their husband’s family.

When India came under British rule, the practice was tolerated at first. In fact, a colonial government official in the province of Bengal increased the prestige value of sati. However, campaigns against the practice by Christian missionaries like William Carey and Hindus such as Swaminarayan and Ram Mohan Roy led to its abolition.

Swaminarayan, a religious pioneer of a reformed and purified Hinduism in the 1800s, is the founder of the Swaminarayan Hindu tradition. He was strongly opposed to the practice of sati, and actively worked to educate the masses against such abhorrent, misguided, and groundless social customs. Swaminarayan preached that all life is equally sacred, whether male or female; life is God-given and so can only be taken by God. Moreover, the practice had no Vedic standing. According to Hindu scripture, there is no mention of sati whatsoever in Vedic literature. The earliest scholarly discussion of sati is found in Sanskrit literature from the tenth to twelfth century. Medhatithi of Kashmir gives commentary on sati by arguing it is a form of suicide, which is prohibited by Vedic tradition.

Swaminarayan advocated heavily for female rights with the goal of effecting positive social reforms as well as removing suffering by opposing sati and other practices like dudh-piti, a method of female infanticide by drowning newborns in milk. His endeavours were supported by Sir John Malcolm, Governor of the Bombay Presidency, and helped lead to the Sati Abolition Act in 1829. Its enactment was accompanied by fear of protest from the orthodoxy; many were apprehensive of a defensive reaction from Hindus that would only worsen the problem. Whilst there was some protest, mainly by orthodox Hindus in Calcutta, the ban was not lifted. The campaign against the abolition led to an amendment to the Indian Penal Code ten years later, which distinguished between ‘voluntary’ and ‘forceful’ sati; the former was permitted. Queen Victoria later issued a general ban throughout India in 1861 where laws were enacted by government authorities.

sati maharaj
Photo via BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha

More recently, there have been 28 cases of sati or attempted sati between 1943 and 1987 in India. One of the most well documented cases was that of Roop Kanwar, an 18-year-old from Rajasthan, India. In response to this incident, additional legislation was passed nationwide by the central government of India.